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Voting under the gun: elections and conflict around the world

When voters around the world cast ballots, it is often with bullets on their minds. Voting during civil conflict is sadly frequent and elections can also prompt violence. Despite this, elections are still seen as a means to bolster the peace after war ends, hinting at a deeper trend: elections and violence seem inextricably connected.

To give some recent examples of this link, Colombians participated in a presidential election seen widely as a referendum on its nascent peace process in June 2014, and Afghans voted in the second round of a presidential election just one day before Colombia. Further back in time, in 2010, a presidential election in Côte d’Ivoire sparked a bloody standoff between Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara. In contrast, Liberia’s 2005 elections followed the 2002 Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement and brought Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to power.

According to my own as-yet-unpublished research, over one-third of elections since the end of the cold war have been held either during or within 10 years of the end of civil conflict. Scholars have taken note and study after study has revealed a complex relationship between elections and democracy on one hand and organized violence on the other hand.

We can summarize three broad lessons from these efforts. First, elections may result in violence, but not necessarily civil war. Two recent articles hint that Western scrutiny has led less-than-democratic incumbents to violently repress their opponents, an effect heightened by international election observers. But another study concludes that elections are unfairly blamed for causing civil war. Given that elections tend to happen at moments that are politically trying, they may actually give potential contestants a reason to step away from the precipice.

A second major lesson is that post-conflict elections are highly dangerous. Roland Paris first made this claim in his book At War’s End. My own research showed that post-conflict elections held soon after the end of war in newly democratizing countries tend to end badly, a finding confirmed by others. New research, however, puts a damper on this pessimism, showing that peace treaties that allow insurgents to compete in post-war elections strengthen the peace.

My own ongoing research into elections and democratization hints at a third and final lesson. I have found that civil conflict slows, but does not stop short-term democratic momentum after elections, all else equal. So, holding elections during civil war, as in Colombia and Afghanistan, may not be such a bad thing, since we still expect such elections to solidify democracy.

Yet these elections may also undermine democracy in the long-run if voters come to associate continuing insecurity with democratic rule. Colombia’s presidential election saw only 40 per cent turnout and 6 per cent of voters voting ‘en blanco’, or for no candidate. Guatemala provides a sobering example of the dangers of these patterns if left unchecked. Continuing insecurity due to crime 20 years after the end of its civil war has left voters with little faith in democratic practice.

Where does this research leave us? The last 20 years of scholarship certainly has deepened our understanding of the relationship between elections and violence. But a lot of work remains to be done. We still know little, for example, about what makes certain elections prone to violence.

Meanwhile, democracy promotion shows little signs of weakening, and policymakers and activists will continue to push elections as a means of finding legitimate partners in dangerous places and reducing the need for Western interference. Perhaps the best advice scholars can give them is to carefully evaluate the context in which elections are held. Elections held in political chaos and economic distress, particularly in countries torn divided along ethnic and religious lines, are likely to be particularly dangerous.

Democratization and violence have often gone hand-in-hand. It’s unclear that link can be broken, but perhaps wise policy can weaken it.


This blog post is published as part of a collaborative partnership between SIPRI and Economists for Peace and Security (EPS).